"You will crawl all night," Huu Co explained to the Russian. "If you do not make it, they will see you in the morning and kill you."
If he expected the man to react, once again, he was wrong. The Russian responded to nothing. He seemed, in some respects, hardly human. Or at least he had no need for some of the things humans needed: rest, community, conversation, humanity even. He never spoke. He appeared phlegmatic to the point of being almost vegetable. Yet at the same time he never complained, he would not wear out, he applied no formal sense of will against Huu Co and the elite commandos of the 45th Sapper Battalion on their long Journey of Ten Thousand Miles, down the trail from the North. He never showed fear, longing, thirst, discomfort, humor, anger or compassion. He seemed not to notice much and hardly ever talked, and then only in grunts.
He was squat, isolated, perhaps desolated. In his army, Huu Co's heroes were designated "Brother Ten" when they distinguished themselves by killing ten Americans: this man, Huu Co realized, was Brother Five Hundred, or some such number. He had no ideology, no enthusiasms; he simply was. Solaratov: solitary. The lone man. It suited him well.
The Russian looked across the fifteen hundred yards of flattened land to the Marine base the enemy called Dodge City, studying it. There was no approach, no visible approach, except on one's belly, the long, long way.
"Could you hit him from this range?"
The Russian considered.
"I could hit a man from this range, yes," he finally said. "But how would I know it was the right man? I cannot see a face from this distance. I have to hit the right man; that is the point."
The argument was well made.
"So then . . . you must crawl."
"I can crawl."
"If you hit him, how will you get out?"
"This time I'm only looking. But when I hit him, I'll wait till dark, then come out the same way I came in."
"They'll call in mortars, artillery, napalm even. It is their way."
"Yes, I may die."
"In napalm? Not pleasant. I've heard many scream as it ate the flesh from their bones. It's over in an instant, but I had the impression it was a long instant."
The Russian merely glared at him, no recognition in his eyes at all, even though they'd lived in close proximity for a week and had for days before that pored over the photos and the mock-up of Dodge City.
"My advice, comrade brother," said Huu Co, "is that you follow the depression in the earth three hundred meters. You move at dark, in maximum camouflage. They have nightscopes and they will be hunting. But the scopes aren't one hundred percent reliable. It'll be a long stalk, a terrible stalk. I can only hope you are up to it and that your heart is strong and pure."
"I have no heart," said the solitary man. "I am the sniper."
For the first recon, Solaratov did not take his case, which by now all considered a rifle sheath. He carried no weapons except a SPETSNAZ dagger, black and thin and wicked.
He left at nightfall, dappled in camouflage, looking more like an ambulatory swamp than a man. Behind his back, the sappers called him not the Solitary Man or the Russian but, with the eternal insouciance of soldiers, the Human Noodle, because the stalks were stiff like unboiled noodles. In seconds, as he slithered off through the elephant grass, he was invisible.
Huu Co noted that his technique was extraordinary, a mastery of the self. This was the ultimate slow. He moved with delicacy, one limb at a time, a pace so slow and deliberate it almost didn't exist. Who would have patience for such a journey?
"He is mad," one of the sappers said to another.
"All Russians are mad," said the other. "You can see it in their eyes."
"But this one is really mad. He's nuts!"
The sappers waited quietly underground, in elaborate tunnels built in the Year of the Snake, 1965. They cooked meals, enjoyed jury-rigged showers and treated the event almost like a furlough. It was a happy time for men who had fought hard, been wounded many times. At least six of them were Brothers Ten. They were shrewd, experienced professionals.
For his time, Huu Co studied the photographs or waited up top, hidden in the grass, using up his eyestrain to stare at the strange fort fifteen hundred yards off, which looked so artificial cut into the earth of his beloved country by men from across the sea with a different sensibility and no sense of history.
He waited, staring at the sea of grass. His arm hurt. He could hardly close his hand. When he grew bored, he snatched a book from his tunic, in English. It was Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkein, very amusing. It took him away from this world but always, when Frodo's adventures vanished, he had to return to Firebase Dodge City and his deepest question: when would the sniper return?
The fire ants were only the first of his many ordeals. Attracted to his sweat, they came and crawled into the folds of his neck, tasting his blood, crawling, biting, feasting. He was a banquet for the insect world. After the ants, others were drawn. Mosquitoes big as American helicopters buzzed around his ears, lit on his face, stung him gently and departed, bloated. What else? Spiders, mites, ticks, dragonflies, the whole phyla drawn to the miasma of decay a sweating man produces in the tropics on a hot morning. But not maggots. Maggots are for the dead, and perhaps in some way the maggots respected him. He was not dead and, moreover, he fed the maggots much in his time on earth. They left him alone.
It wasn't that Solaratov was beyond feeling such things. He felt them, all right. He felt every sting, bite, prick or tweak; his aches and swellings and blotches and throbbings were the same as any man's. He had just somehow managed to disconnect the feeling part of his body from the registering part of his brain. It can be learned, and at the upper reaches of the performance envelope, among those who are not merely brave, willful or dedicated but truly among the best in the world, extraordinary things are routine.
He lay now in the elephant grass, approximately one hundred yards from the sandbag perimeter of Firebase Dodge City, just outside the double strands of concertina wire. He could see Claymore mines facing him from a dozen angles, and the half-buried detonators of other, larger mines. But he could also hear American rock and roll bellowing out of the transistor radios all the young Marines seemed to carry, and listening to it was his only pleasure.
"I can't get no satisfaction," someone sang with a loud raspy voice, and Solaratov understood: he could get no satisfaction either.
The Marines were unbearably sloppy. He had seen the Israelis from extremely close range in some of his ops and the British SAS and even the fabled American Green Berets; all were sound troops. These boys thought the war was over for them; they were worse than Cubans or Angolans. They lounged around sunbathing, played touch football or baseball or basketball, sneaked out to smoke hemp, got in fights or got drunk. Their sentries slept at night. The officers didn't bother to shave. Nobody dressed in anything resembling a uniform, and most spent the days in shorts, undershirts (or shirtless) and shower shoes.
Even when they went on combat patrol, they were loud and stupid. The point men paid no attention, the flank security drifted in toward the column, the machine gunner had his belts tangled around him, and his assistant, with other belts, fell too far behind him to do him any good in a fight. Clearly they had not been in a fight in months, if ever; clearly they expected no such thing to occur as they waited for the order to leave the country.
Once, a patrol stumbled right over him. Five men, hustling through the elephant grass on the way out for a night ambush mission, walked so close to him that if any had been even remotely awake, they would have killed him easily. He saw their jungle boots, big as mountains, just inches from his face. But two of the men were listening to radios, one was clearly high, one so young and frightened he belonged in school, and the platoon leader, stuck with these silly boys, looked terrified. Solaratov knew exactly what would happen; the patrol would go out a thousand yards and the sergeant would hunker them down in some high grass, where they'd sit all night, smoking and talking and pretending they weren't at war. In the morning the sergeant would bring them in and file a no-contact report. It was the kind of war fought by men who'd rather be anywhere except in the war.
Each night, Solaratov would relieve himself, hand-bury his feces, drink from his canteen and slowly, ever so slowly change position. He didn't care what was in the encampment, but he had to know by what routes an experienced man would make an egress on the way to a hunting mission. How would Swagger take his spotter out? Which part of the sandbag berm would they go over and from what latitudes was it accessible to rifle fire?
He made careful notes, identifying eight or nine spots where there appeared to be a lane through the wire and the Claymores and the mines, where an experienced man would travel efficiently; of course, conversely, the other Marines would stay well clear of these areas. He read the land, looking for folds that led out of the camp to the treeline, or a progression of obstacles behind which two men, moving quickly, could transverse on the way to the job. They were the only two men still fighting the war; they were the only two men keeping this place alive. He wondered if the other soldiers knew it. Probably not.
Twice, he saw Swagger himself and felt the hot rush of excitement a hunter sees when his prey steps into the kill zone. But always, he cautioned himself to be slow, be sure, not to become excited; that caused mistakes.
From this vantage point, Swagger was a tall, thin, hard man, who always appeared parade-ground neat in his camouflaged tunic. Solaratov could read his contempt for the boys of Dodge City, but also his restraint, his disinterest, his commitment to his own duties that kept him apart from them. He was aloof, walking alone always: Solaratov knew this well--it was the sniper's way. The Russian also noted that when Swagger walked through the compound, even the loudest and most disgruntled of the Marines grew quickly still and pretended to work. He worked silently, and moved with economy of motion and style. But he was not going on missions for now, and seemed to spend much of his time indoors, in a bunker that was probably intelligence or communications.
On the last day, he saw him again, from an even closer vantage point. Solaratov had worked up until he was but fifty meters from the complex of huts where Swagger seemed to spend most of his time, in hopes of getting a good look into the face of the man he proposed to kill. By this time he was quite bold, convinced that the Marines were too narcissistic to notice his presence even if he stood and announced it through a bullhorn.
It was after the daily helicopter flight. The Huey dipped in fast, landed at the firebase's LZ, and a young man jumped out, even as the rotors still spun and kicked up a pall of dust; he disappeared into the complex but in time Solaratov saw him, this time with Swagger. It looked almost to be a fight. The two raged at each other, far from the others. If he were armed, it might have been a chance to take them both, but there was no escape and if he'd fired shots, even these childish troopers could have brought massive firepower to bear and gotten him. That wasn't the point: he wasn't on a suicide mission. He would never give himself up for an objective, unless there was no other way and the objective represented something that was his own passionate, deeply held conviction, not a job for another department, that he didn't fully trust to begin with.
So he just listened and watched. The two had it out. It was like a final confrontation between a proud father and his disappointing son or an upright son and his disappointing father. He could hear the anger and the betrayal and the accusation in the voices.
"What the fuck is wrong with you?" the older man kept screaming in the English that the Russian had studied for years.
"You cannot do this to me! You do not have the moral authority to do this to me!" the younger screamed back.
On and on it went, like a grand scene from Dostoyevsky. It was a mark of how each man was held in the respect of his comrades that no witnesses intruded, no officers interceded; their anger drove the young Marines, normally working hard on their suntans by this time, inside.
Finally, the two men reached some kind of rapprochement; they went back into the intelligence bunker, and after a while the young man left alone and went over to what must have been the living quarters, where he would bunk. He emerged an hour or so later, in full combat gear, with a rifle and a flack vest and went back to the intelligence bunker.
Solaratov knew: At last, the spotter is back.
There were no other sightings that day, and at nightfall, Solaratov finished his last canteen, rolled over and began the long crawl back to the tunnel complex in the treeline more than a thousand yards away.
"Senior Colonel, the Human Noodle is here!"
The call, from a sergeant, rocked Huu Co out of sleep. It was a good thing, too. As on most nights, he was reliving the moment when the American Phantoms came roaring down the valley and the napalm pods tumbled lazily from under their wings. They hit about fifty meters ahead of his forward position in the valley and bounced majestically, pulling a curtain of living flame behind them.
He arose swiftly and located the Russian, eating with gusto and lack of sophistication in the tunnel's mess hall. The Russian devoured everything in sight, including noodles, fish head soup, chunks of raw cabbage, beef, pork, tripe. He ate with his fingers, which were now coated with grease; he ate with perfect clarity and concentration, pausing now and then for a satisfying belch, or to wipe a paw across his greasy mouth. He drank too, glass after glass of tea and water. Finally, when he was done, he asked for vodka, which was produced, a small Russian bottle. He finished it in a single draught.
At last, he turned and faced the senior colonel.
"Now I wash, then I sleep. Maybe forty-eight hours. Then, on the third day, I will move out."
"You have a plan."
"I know when and where he'll leave, and how he'll move. It's in the land. If you can read the land, you can read the other man's mind. I'll kill them both three days from now."
For the first time, he smiled.
From the Hardcover edition.